Tampa’s police chief asked a cop for a favor. What are the ethics of that?

Chief Mary O’Connor resigned in the fallout from what could have been a minor traffic stop caught on video that went viral.
Tampa Police chief Mary O'Connor, shown at an October news conference, resigned days after a video showing her asking a deputy to let her and her husband go after a traffic stop made news.
Tampa Police chief Mary O'Connor, shown at an October news conference, resigned days after a video showing her asking a deputy to let her and her husband go after a traffic stop made news. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 8, 2022|Updated Dec. 11, 2022

The very public downfall of Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor has sparked questions about police ethics and what’s long been called “professional courtesy” between cops.

O’Connor brought the pinnacle of her policing career to an end with a flash of her badge on a Saturday evening in November. Body cam video that would later make national news and get mocked on The Daily Show caught her and her husband — also a high-ranking city employee — as they were pulled over by a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy because their golf cart had no tag.

Police badge in hand, O’Connor identified herself the top cop from the neighboring city and said she hoped the deputy would just let them go. When he did, she handed him her business card and said, ”If you ever need anything, call me. Serious.”

Just days after the news broke — and nearly three weeks after the actual incident — O’Connor resigned at her boss’ behest after only 10 months at the helm. Police chiefs lead by example, said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, and “that clearly did not happen in this case.” O’Connor said during an internal review she had identified herself as a police officer “for safety” but admitted she made a mistake in asking to be let go without a ticket.

For some ethics experts, the implications were clear:

“Police officers are supposed to be treating everybody equally under the law,” said Terry Cooper, emeritus professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “This is an explicit request for a favor by an ... official asking for unequal treatment — special treatment.”

“It was abuse of public office,” he said.

Professor Anthony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics & Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law, said via email that O’Connor “deliberately and specifically sought to obtain special, favored treatment, openly flouting her official duties and disregarding her ethical obligations.”

“It’s unfair to the public who would not be able to flash a badge to get out of, frankly, a petty offense,” said John Pelissero, senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University.

Roxanne Watson, a media law and ethics professor at the University of South Florida, also noted an implied quid pro quo in O’Connor handing the deputy her business card and telling him to call her if he needed anything.

“This is the police chief,” she said. “This is someone at the heart of the law.” (In an internal review, O’Connor said she often gave out cards and didn’t intend preferential treatment.)

Police giving fellow officers a pass — or people who are pulled over mentioning they’re related to a cop in hopes of getting a break — is not new, particularly when the potential violation is minor.

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“That’s been around since the beginning of time — I’m sure it goes on all the time,” said former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. “‘Oh, look the other way, I’m part of the blue line.’”

Other jurisdictions have different forms of professional courtesy. In New York and New Jersey, officers have been known to give out Police Benevolent Association courtesy cards to close friends and family, who can hand them to an officer along with their driver’s license during a traffic stop in hopes of getting a warning instead of a ticket.

Brian Dugan, who retired as Tampa’s police chief last year, said law enforcement in the past sometimes used “discretion” in minor cases not only with fellow cops but with firefighters and military and medical personnel. He recalled a grim joke about how you never wanted to give a doctor a ticket only to be looking up at him from a gurney an hour later with a bullet wound.

“Do regular people get a break? Yes, they do,” said Dugan — particularly when they’re courteous and cooperative, he said.

Former Tampa Police chief Brian Dugan. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2021)
Former Tampa Police chief Brian Dugan. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2021)

But a police chief, he said “should be held to a higher standard.”

“I think the issue is when (O’Connor) has her badge out before (the deputy) even got out of the car,” he said.

Cooper said he was shocked in the aftermath of the O’Connor news to see a retired big-city police officer opining on national TV that such courtesies are common and no big deal.

“If it’s done all the time, it’s a very big deal,” he said.

Dugan said this type of “professional courtesy, so to speak” has waned these days as police are under more scrutiny.

Some have wondered about the role of Larry Jacoby, the Pinellas deputy who pulled over the golf cart. Keith O’Connor, director of Tampa’s Neighborhood Enhancement Division, was driving with his wife in the passenger seat. It was unclear why Mary O’Connor asked the deputy if he was recording the encounter, and after being told yes, went on to identify herself on camera as the police chief and to say she hoped he would “just let us go tonight.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the deputy reported the incident with the O’Connors to his superiors. The sheriff said that historically, fewer than 20 percent of the county’s traffic stops end in a ticket.

The O’Connors said they had gone to the club inside their gated community for food and, finding it closed, took the golf cart to a nearby Greek place for takeout. Gualtieri said they were headed back and 100 yards from their subdivision — not a situation that would have warranted a citation.

The deputy “didn’t do anything in not citing them for not having a tag on their golf cart that he wouldn’t have done for anyone else,” Gualtieri said. “What’s wrong about it is what (O’Connor) did, in asking for special treatment and being so blatant and bold about it.”

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Brian Higgins, a former police chief in New Jersey and adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, pointed out that the deputy wasn’t looking at a major violation such as speeding or blowing through a red light. “Officers have discretion and do it all the time,” he said.

“I can see myself as a young deputy pulling over a sheriff and saying ‘OK, go on your way,’ said Dugan, the former police chief. “It would be quite intimidating to go down that road.”

The potential damage of the O’Connor case, observers say, is in how the public looks at law enforcement.

“The perception is that police have such discretion they can decide as a matter of so-called professional courtesy to not apply the rules to another member of law enforcement,” said Pelissero.

“The public looks at this like the cops are allowed to get away with whatever they want, which really isn’t the truth,” said Higgins.

“It violates public trust,” said Cooper. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

Watson said the encounter that night was “a wonderful opportunity for (O’Connor) to show the rule of law applies to everybody.”

“Instead, she goes down this road of asking for favors.”